A liquor store in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The two Virginia men accused of using inside information from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to give bourbon collectors a heads up on where to get rare bottles won’t face any active jail time after both pleaded guilty to one felony charge related to computer trespassing.
Robert Adams, a Hampton Roads man whom authorities say sold internal ABC liquor data to people he met in online groups of bourbon hunters, was sentenced March 20 to one year of incarceration, with all of that time suspended as long as he maintains good behavior.
“The fact that he wasn’t given any active jail sentence or a fine was a reflection of the minimal nature of his infraction,” said defense attorney Vaughan C. Jones, who represented Adams in the case.
Edgar Garcia, a former ABC employee accused of working with Adams, made a similar plea last year and received a suspended sentence of two years.
Neither case went to a full trial in Hanover County Circuit Court, and authorities dropped several charges against both men to secure guilty pleas.
Adams isn’t in the clear yet. He’s also facing several misdemeanor charges in Chesapeake, where authorities are accusing him of buying and selling alcohol illegally. Those offenses are classified as Class 1 misdemeanors, which are punishable by up to a year in jail and fines of up to $2,500. The Chesapeake charges are connected to the broader investigation by ABC, according to Adams’ lawyer.
The controversy drew national attention as an example of the extreme competition among bourbon aficionados for highly sought-after bottles that can be resold for a profit. All liquor sales in Virginia are overseen by a government authority, which puts ABC in the position of trying to create a fair process for making its limited supply of special bourbons available to the public. The rarest products are sold via lottery, but others are sold through regular ABC stores when the authority gets them in stock.
Previously, the agency shipped those bottles to specific stores throughout the state, a system that led some collectors to try to find ways to track where and when certain bottles would be available. Many in the online bourbon-hunting community felt some bottles seemed to be disappearing strangely fast, and it became an open secret that inside information could be purchased for a few hundred dollars.
Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor, who handled some aspects of the Adams case after the prosecutor in her office who had been handling it left for a different job, said securing a felony conviction was significant, even if it didn’t come with active jail time.
“If he was thinking about doing this again he might think about it a second time,” Taylor said. “This isn’t just about bourbon, this is about acting as if the rules don’t apply to you. And that’s not how society works.”
Taylor said, from her perspective, the victims in the case were other bourbon enthusiasts who missed out on a chance to buy something they wanted. But public confidence also suffers, she said, when it looks like a system has been rigged.
“When it comes to government regulation, everyone should be abiding by the same rules,” Taylor said.
When officials caught on to what was happening, ABC changed to a randomized drop system in which select stores are given the go-ahead to put rare bottles on the shelves, a move meant to make leaks less likely.
“These aren’t defense secrets,” Taylor said. “But they’re secrets nonetheless.”
ABC seized more than 200 bottles of bourbon from Adams, Taylor said. After the Chesapeake case is concluded, she said, that stash will be destroyed.
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